HL Deb 10 April 1962 vol 239 cc383-8

3.46 p.m.

Debate resumed.


My Lords, I think the whole House will agree that we have just listened to one of the most remarkable orations of which the noble and learned Viscount has delivered himself during the time, he has been Leader of the House. I would pay a tribute to him for the care and attention which he has given to the history of this matter. He has dwelt on the traditions of English life, political and administrative, and I do not think it would have been possible for any other person to achieve quite the phraseology of his oration to-day. But let me say at once that I had not imagined for a moment, having very carefully studied the procedure on this particular Motion in another place, that we would cover quite the ground traversed by the noble and learned Viscount's statement.

I dare say he will have observed from looking at the list of those intending to speak that nobody is going to speak on this side except myself and Lord Longford, because this was an agreed Motion, one which has been hanging fire ever since the original Motion, with different terms of reference, was laid before another place on April 26 last year. The particular Motion we have now—except for same slight alterations towards the end of the wording—is in accordance with the middle phrase of the three-pronged Motion that was laid before the House of Commons last year. In those circumstances we determined that we would regard this matter as having reached a point of consultation, which expressed itself in the setting up of a Joint Select Committee of both Houses for which there was general agreement as to the basis of discussion.

We have gone rather more widely in the survey, as I think it was intended to be, made by the noble and learned Viscount this afternoon. But he is not only an orator who carefully prepares his ground; he is also a speaker who, from time to time in the course of his addresses—to the Commons, to the House of Lords, or to any other audience—cannot refrain from saying exactly what is in his mind. He let forth one or two things this afternoon that I cannot possibly ignore. There was his reference, for example, to the manner in which there had been few grave breaches in the understanding between the Parties since the unfortunate breach of 1911. When we come to these amended terms of reference, on which both Houses have agreed to join in a Joint Select Committee, the reason why the three-pronged Resolution was submitted in 1961, as was clearly present in the noble and learned Viscount's mind, was that it would have brought under discussion the powers of this House.

Enough has been said on the subject from time to time since the amendments to the powers of the House of Lords were first made by a Liberal Government years ago and the additional amendment in the time of the post-war Labour Government. Many persons in this House have desired to see your Lordships' powers increased. If you want general agreement on that, you can count the Labour Party out. We could not discuss any amendment to the constitution and the powers of the House of Lords on that basis. I make that clear right away. The noble and learned Viscount has stated quite fairly the obvious feelings of a member of a noble family who may be engaged in another place; when the parent finally hands over to his heir he does not want to move but wishes to stay in the elected-representative Chamber.

The noble and learned Viscount made some reference to my friend Anthony Wedgwood Benn, who is, of course, unable for the moment to shed himself of the legal title of Viscount Stansgate; and to what he engaged in so as to get his felt injustice removed. What he did was to go back to the electors, who had elected him to Parliament, for reelection. That was referred to by the noble and learned Viscount as being possibly—he did not say it too firmly—perverse. Certainly, it was not something with which he agreed. Whether that came from a natural reaction that, perhaps, sufficient response was not made by a Labour Prime Minister to his own representations in 1950 I do not know, but perhaps there was some reaction in that direction. However let me say this: that there would be no joint agreement and no proposal of this amended character for a Joint Select Committee had it not been for the courage and the expression of sacrifice of Anthony Wedgwood Benn in taking the course he did, a course which was not illegal—a returning officer would not refuse his nomination—to bring his case before Parliament and the nation in such a way as to create an opinion which might lead to organised attempts for a reform, which would give justice not only to himself but to any others who might find themselves placed in the same position. Therefore, I disagree with the approach that the noble and learned Viscount makes in describing the position of Viscount Stansgate, Anthony Wedgwood Benn.

Now we shall have to discuss certain things, in relation to the necessary amendments which will come, in accordance with the constitutional practice of the House of Lords; and it is no use burking the fact that some people will surely not agree with whatever the findings of the Joint Select Committee may be. But of all the things that the noble and learned Viscount has mentioned, the first thing we have to remember is the ruling which was kept for nearly the whole of the proceedings on this Motion in another place, until the Attorney-General wound up the debate: that we shall have to leave these things very largely to what the Joint Select Committee decide to recommend, and it will then be for both Houses of Parliament to debate and discuss them, for there to be the usual conversation between those who are chosen by their Parties to discuss matters in detail, and see what the outcome of it is.

Nevertheless, there are certain things that I should like to say myself. The first is that one cannot very well split oneself into two entirely different beings. I agree with what the noble and learned Viscount said in his approach to that matter. I did not agree with every word he said upon it, but I am quite certain of this: that the nation as a whole would not understand it if people wanted to be in a position where they could go into the Lords or into the Commons, or to go from the Lords into the Commons by a renunciation of a peerage for a period of one life only, with no renunciation of the hereditary principle in the family of a man who wished to give up the peerage which he had inherited. Certainly, that is not what we should desire from our point of view.

I want to make it quite clear that discussion upon that point is perfectly open to the Joint Select Committee, under the terms of reference, and I think that that must be admitted—that that can be discussed. But as to whether you would be likely to get agreement afterwards on the findings of the Committee that went in a particular direction, that would be another matter altogether. So I hope we shall, naturally, bear those things in mind. Moreover, I hope that we shall not, by the early part of the opening of the noble and learned Viscount this afternoon, in which he spoke about tradition and the like, sour a little the mind of the public in certain directions, as to whether we do not count tradition too highly over what has grown, in the last two centuries, to be an established democratic idea: that of the full power that is now given to the elected Chamber in the House of Commons to manage the affairs of the country. It has a Revising Chamber up here, certainly; but if it were suggested, as I seemed to detect in the mind of the noble and learned Viscount, that if there were not two Chambers, or perhaps a Second Chamber quite of the character of this one, it would mean a threat to this practice or this idea, or even a danger to the Sovereign herself, then I surely could not accept that. In New Zealand, there is never any question of challenge to the authority of, and the tremendous affection and admiration for, Her Gracious Majesty and the constitutional Throne of this country, but New Zealand has a single Chamber, and a single Chamber established by a Conservative Government.

I think we must look at this matter with a little more freedom of thought than seems to have been establishing itself in the minds of some of your Lordships, and I do not think we need pay too much attention to that. Certainly, we need to bring justice to any person who, having an hereditary peerage, feels he wishes to be relieved from the incubus which is placed upon him; an incubus very often applying to his right to be heard, if elected by the electors, in the representative Chamber. In many cases you will find, if you discuss general matters with a man who has succeeded to a peerage from the death of his father, that the actual use of the name is a handicap in his particular vocation, or in his special 'business or profession. I do not say that these instances are very frequent, but I have come across them several times myself. The great thing there is to have complete justice lot those persons, so that if they wish to be free they can be free. But there is no shadow of logical reason why that should mean that, afterwards, their children can be re-enacted as passing on to the possession of the Peerage which their parent has rejected.

I do not wish to detain the House too long, but I have read very carefully the speech of Mr. Macleod in introducing the Motion in the other place. He was not quite sure about some things. I have also read very carefully the speech of the Attorney General in another place. There is some question as to whether the aim of the terms of reference has been drawn tightly enough to keep to the position to which we wish to adhere. Mr. Gaitskell, in dealing with the matter in debate, said that if there was any blame to be spread upon that matter he must share in it with the others who were concerned in agreeing to the terms of reference. But I am quite sure of this: that I can accept—and I am sure my colleagues can accept—the terms of reference, as they are submitted in the Motion moved by the noble and learned Viscount to-day, because they are capable of being discussed in general, upon the basis that we want them to be discussed; and we can afterwards decide upon the actual recommendations of the Joint Select Committee.

I hope very much that this Motion will be accepted without opposition. It has taken nine years to come to a position in which we could make some beginning to discussions on these matters upon a joint and agreed basis. When we come to deal with a matter of such constitutional importance as will be dealt with by the Joint Select Committee, then I, for one, like my Leader in another place, think it is a good thing that we should be able to proceed at the outset on the greatest possible measure of agreement. If we do not get agreement on matters of this constitutional character, then it leads either to complete frustration, further delays or a question of going to the nation upon an issue which ought not to have to be put to them and which would bring such divisions as would then come. I hope, therefore, that we shall continue in that spirit in which the Leaders of the Parties in another place have acted in this matter, and that we shall pass this Motion without a Division.

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